Gael Monfils, Pete Sampras in exhibition

Updated: February 8, 2011, 2:37 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- James Blake won his first competitive match since October, beating qualifier Jesse Levine 7-5, 6-1 in the first round of the SAP Open on Monday.

Blake had not played since losing to Lukasz Kubot in the first round in Vienna this past October because of shoulder and knee injuries. Blake, a 10-time winner on tour who was once ranked as high as fourth in the world, has fallen to 170th in the latest rankings.

Blake previously overcame a broken neck and a case of shingles in 2004 to make it into the top 5 of the rankings two years later. Now he's looking for another comeback at age 31.

He got off to a shaky start against a player ranked 293rd in the world, failing to take advantage of early break point opportunities and falling behind 5-4 in the first set after losing serve on the only break point he faced in the match.

Blake responded by breaking Levine right back to extend the set, starting a stretch in which he won nine of the final 10 games in the match. He won the first set when Levine hit a forehand into the net, then dominated the second set. Blake lost just 11 points in the seven games, winning 80 percent of the points on his own serve.

"It's going to take a little while because I hadn't played a match in four months," Blake said. "It will take a couple of matches. This was a good step to get through this one. I was happy that once I got broken I didn't hang my head or start panicking or freaking out or anything. I got back on my horse and broke him back.

"I thought it might take a little while to get back to playing my best in the big time," he said. "Hopefully this is a good step and it will keep getting better."

Blake will next play the winner of Tuesday's first-round match between fourth-seeded Xavier Malisse and Milos Raonic.

In other first-round matches, Michael Russell beat Alex Kuznetsov 6-4, 6-2; Tim Smyczek defeated Robert Farah 7-5, 3-6, 6-3; Denis Istomin beat Roman Borvanov 6-3, 7-5; and Donald Young knocked off Dustin Brown 7-6 (2), 6-4.

The highlight of the opening night of the tournament was an exhibition between Pete Sampras and Gael Monfils, who is seeded second in the main draw.

Monfils outran, outserved and outplayed the 14-time Grand Slam winner on the way to a lighthearted 7-6 (4), 6-4 exhibition win.

Monfils took a photographer's camera to snap a shot of Sampras at one point, did a push-up, sprint and sit-up while Sampras rested after a long point, and tried a few between-the-leg shots.

Sampras, 39, was appearing here in an exhibition for the fourth straight year. He showed off his stellar serve-and-volley game and bantered with the crowd throughout the match.

Monfils later filmed Sampras' postmatch interview with his phone, recording praise like this: "I've played a lot of good movers in my day. He's one of the best I've ever played."

Monfils, who was just 4 years old when Sampras won his first major title at the U.S. Open in 1990, said after the match: "To play against you, Pete, is a dream."

Sampras said after the match that he is looking forward to his next exhibition against someone close to his own age, vowing to beat Andre Agassi in New York later this month.

Sampras will square off with his old rival Agassi in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, and he took the opportunity to hype up that match.

"I always beat him in New York," he said. "I will say that."

Sampras also is finally starting to embrace the technology that has taken over the sport in recent years, switching from the old Wilson racket he used during his career to the more powerful Babolat that is so popular with today's players.

"I need a little bit more pop," he said. "I need it if I'm going to play some tennis."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.